CBGB: A Film Review: This Movie Sucks. Don't See It

Apr 03, 2014

I’m back at the Metro, eyes buzzing. My partner and I talked too long at the restaurant so we’re rushed, fumbling through the dark.

I spend most of my existence marinating in my brain’s juices. Getting my ass stuck to a theater seat is my holiday. I was immediately disappointed when I saw the trailer for CBGB; I wanted it to be a documentary. My love of rock docs dances somewhere between preference and raging bias. History hits me stronger than any embellishment. That being said, there are plenty of fictionalized biopics brimming with quality. (Good Vibrations and Control alone support this.)

CBGB opens with John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil in a basement. They argue about music (or more accurately, grumble) before discussing the conception of Punk Magazine. The casting director seems to have opted for good looks over accurate resemblance. Peter Vack (playing McNeil) and Josh Zukerman (portraying Holmstrom) boast a facial symmetry not even their affected, shaggy hair can divert.

The worst thing a movie can do is bombard us with people too attractive to empathize with.

I’m unimpressed that the screenwriters felt the need to name Holmstrom and McNeil onscreen. Shouldn’t their conversation place enough context for the audience to assume their identities? We’re fans, not idiots!

(Little do I know the film will introduce every musician, artist, and manager alike with a name plastered onscreen, presumably to enhance the dramatic irony of the movement.)

Next, we’re introduced to CBGB owner Hilly Kristal as a screaming baby in a cradle, dubbed “the godfather of punk.” Sorry, but that’s Iggy Pop’s title. If you’re writing a screenplay about the punk scene, that’s something you should know. And it’s something you should acknowledge.

I should be kind. Individual interpretation is what makes pop culture rock. Right?

Credit roll. I smell the gorgeous grit of punk scrubbed numb with studio soap bubbles. This film has made a shit first impression, one I sincerely hope it’ll recover from. The last thing I want to do is take home a bitter attitude and a worse review. I’d rather rave than bitch.

Someone behind me is laughing at all the bits I find least humorous.

Tonight has become an exercise in patience.

I want to be sucked into the screen. When you go to a movie, you have the opportunity to be changed by what you watch. I want to reject my reality and be overwhelmed by someone else’s. Artistic exposition lets us tour in a stranger’s brain.

I crave the impossible: I want to be moved by every word I read and every show I see. Leaving a premiere underwhelmed means the creator and I failed to connect. We missed the moment.

I want to enjoy this movie... but I’m not.

When it comes to punk, not even all documentaries can sate my counter-culture munchies. The filter of a clumsy biopic is even worse.  

The screen’s suffused with a mashup of Punk zine covers and name drops in a desperate attempt to salvage interest—and trust—from viewers.

I find the character-driven side-plots (debt collectors, family squabbles, uneasy alliances with rats) tiresome. I’m finding apathy where I should find relation.

Luckily for the creative team, I know nothing of Kristal’s financial struggles or family dramas, so any embellishment in these areas is safe from my scrutiny.

But when they style the infamous “Please Kill Me” T-shirt as white letters on a black top, sans bullseye, I cringe. Details are moot when you drive into the maw of the movement, but they’ve missed the bullseye in more ways than one.

Mickey Sumner’s imitation of Patti Smith makes me smile, but when she breaks into “Because the Night”(a song released in 1978, well after the early days of the New York hub), my mouth takes a suicide dive off my face.

My boyfriend is equally livid when the Ramones perform what he tells me is a track from Joey Ramone’s solo days. He wonders aloud if the film could only procure permission to showcase particular songs, forcing them to sacrifice chronological accuracy. If so, these gaffs are forgivable, but still disheartening.

As for other discrepancies, there’s little excuse. How hard is it to style a shirt in accordance with verbal accounts? How hard is it to have Lou Reed say, “Your circulation must be fabulous” instead of the strangely-chosen alteration, “Your circulation must be excellent” when McNeil and Holmstrom ask to interview him for Punk magazine. If it ain’t broke...

Worst of all is the depiction of the infamous whipped cream blow job, when Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys was blown onstage by a waitress.

Genya Ravan’s testimony of the actual event paints a far different picture than that of the film:

“I said ‘Let’s,’ like I was gonna indulge with her... ‘Let’s go get the whipped cream. Then... you go up onstage, get on your knees, open Stiv’s fly, and put the whipped cream on his dick.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Come on! Whaddya got to lose? ...Come on! What’s the problem?’ I said anything to get her to do it. ... And I pushed her onstage.”

This woman (whose name is oddly forgotten by everyone who recounts the tale) was goaded (even bullied?) into the act by Ravan herself. Yet this movie would have us believe the waitress was a fiercely independent punkette letting off sexual steam.

I’d easily forgive these factual rifts if I felt the movie remained loyal to the core, but I feel no buzz, no magic, no unbridled DIY brilliance. The storyline scrambles for cheap laughs via Freddy Rodriguez playing the resident junkie and Alan Rickman’s deadpan delivery as Kristal, combined with squishy cockroaches.

Sleaze is one thing, but attempted—and failed—sleaze is just embarrassing.

Thought bubbles, comic panels, and written sound effects are at dangerous levels of saturation. They want to distract us from the bullshit dripping beneath.

The charm I wait for never comes. That, or I’m too annoyed for it to sink in.

Bad moods are addictive. Even Rickman’s heartfelt acoustic rendition of “The Birds and The Bees” (a track by Kristal) fails to wipe the steaming crap from my eyeballs.

I’m shocked to learn the movie was birthed by Unclaimed Freight Productions, an indie movie studio. Underdogs should do the losers justice. They didn’t this time. The script even fails the Bechdel Test! I’d understand if this film was tailored under the supreme lordship of Hollywood’s finest (that is, fakest), but why should the Little Guy fall so far from the mark?

Probably ‘cause you don’t need honest intent to make a buck. If you’re a pop culture junkie like me, attention to detail is one of the ways your fervor (often) manifests. Even if you shy from spouting specific facts, you can easily—and giddily—rant in conceptual or theoretical terms, if only to laud The Stooges for “that bitchin’ riff.”

People believe what they watch. If you base a film on actual accounts, why fall prey to predictable stereotypes, white-washing, and cartoonish exploitation? Why reduce a person to a character? If you stick to the real story, you may end up selling more seats than you’d think.

There is no indication anyone working on this film gave a crap about its content, a solid (though repetitive) soundtrack notwithstanding. Yet, if that’s the case, why make the movie in the first place? Why not create something you care about, instead of insulting your intended demographic? If you want to smother audiences with hyperbole and fakery, fine; just choose another movement to shit on. Ours is muddied enough.

Do I expect too much from the underground? Does my harsh analysis make me one of the elitists I vilify? I don’t want to be one of those fans who’ll intentionally call icons by their birth (rather than stage) names, as if passion is a contest, as if we have anything to prove!

It’s best to stay positive. If you judge too long, you’ll find yourself becoming all you loathe.

I’m far past caring. By the time Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry have a duet, all my “whatthefucks” have flown out the theatre.

My sights are always too high. If every creative excursion blasted our brains, we’d be too strung out on beauty to get out of bed. We need lousy nights if only so we can recognize the amazing ones.

Some films will inspire you to re-evaluate your identity. Others make you doze off 3/4 through and wake up to feel brutal about your niche, ‘cause you realize you have none.

Social revolutions are a slippery business. Even if they start off with worthwhile meaning, industry rapes away all honest intent, leaving us with overdoses, stuffed theaters, and bitter reviews.